Mother’s day

Tyler Cowen has a very interesting post today on Mother’s day.

He notes that people will spend an average of $98.64 on Mother’s Day this year. Last year they spend $97.37. In 2000 and 2001, the average spending per customer was less than $65.

Three things jump out:

1) That we have a national holiday is itself striking. Imagine trying to persuade people who live in a traditional society, or even an agricultural one that they should take a day to celebrate their mothers. There would be puzzlement all round.

Is there an “owl of minerva taking wing at dusk” thing going on here? We think to celebrate institutitions only when they are in some way under challenge or at least open to transformation. And we might then wonder what happens to “motherhood” in an intensely individualistic tradition like our own, where children are supposed to take the maternal impress and rework it, with or without due acknowledgement and gratitude. In a culture where people are free and forced to engage in continual acts of self invention, the relationship between mother and child must have some interesting tensions and contradictions.

There are plenty of other questions. In the anthropological way, they start little and scale up in a hurry. Why is “father’s day” a lesser occasion? And why no occasions called “sister’s day” or “auntie’s day?” Surely, our sisters mean more to us than our secretaries who do have a day. Before you know it, you are obliged to account for the whole damn thing.

2) Culture, in this case, a ritual event called Mother’s day, obliges people to acknowledge, to make manifest, things that are otherwise “simply there.” Commerce goes much further. It asks not just for acknowledgment but a quite precise rendering. To mark the event, consumers must make visible whether, how much, and in what ways they care about their mothers. The numbers begin to tell a story that changes over time. In the place of vague but heart felt declarations, we get very particular measures.

3) We can particularly observe the measure changing after 9/11. This seems obvious in a general way. But imagine everything we would have to say to give a comprehensive and incisive (all but only) account of the connection to someone from a different century or planet. (This is a hell of a pachinko machine: from a terrorist attack on the one side to what you buy for your mom on the other. Connecting the dots could take a book or two.)

Cultures have an interesting way of choosing whether and when and how to make its inventions manifest. Commerce is often more forthcoming.